The former dancer, who turns 77 today, spoke to us last year about her life now and recalled the golden era of Hindi films in a special conversation.
Dancer Edwina: I’m so glad 50 years later people say we used to see you in films
Mumbai - 22 Jul 2018 13:00 IST
Looking at dancer Edwina Violette, née Lyons, you wouldn’t believe she is in her mid-seventies. Edwina appeared as a dancer in Hindi film sequences from the 1950s to the 1970s.
Even now, she is youthful in her energy and her sunny smile welcomes us into her home in Naigaon, near Vasai. We visited Edwina last year when she was visiting India from the UK where she has lived since the 1960s.
In a conversation punctuated with a lot of laughter, the former dancer and occasional actress revealed how she loved dancing and music from an early age, recalled her entry into films as a background dancer, and revealed how actor Shammi Kapoor kept in touch even after she retired.
Edwina hasn’t appeared in a film song in nearly four decades, but her fans are abundant on the internet. She has a channel on YouTube, The Edwina channel, featuring the songs she has appeared in (mostly uncredited). And in 2015, a retired professor of physics from the US, Surjit Singh, wrote a book on her, Edwina: An Unsung Bollywood Dancer of the Golden Era.
The opportunity to get into films and dancing came via her brother, Ted Lyons, who was himself a dancer in films. As a young girl, Edwina loved music and dancing but never took any dancing lessons.
Her half-English, half-Irish father John, who met her mother Elizabeth in Iraq, was in the British army. He retired after getting ill at his job at an insecticide firm. Edwina and her siblings began working at an early age. Her sisters Irene and Philomena tried to get her into an office job, but she wasn’t interested.
“I was 16 when I started working," Edwina recalled. "I worked for Glaxo [Laboratories] at Worli. I lied and said I was 18, because you can’t work before you are 18. But they found out three months later and kicked me out.
Glaxo was where she met the man who would be her husband. "I joined on my birthday, funny enough, and he joined on 29 July and I met my Waterloo,” she laughed.
When she lost her office job, Edwina decided to look at the film line. She began dancing with films like Poonam (1952) and Lighthouse (1958). Over time, she was a part of hit films like Dil Deke Dekho (1959), Love In Simla (1960), Junglee (1961) and China Town (1962).
“I thought it was so boring — typing and all. I wanted to do something more," she said. "By then my brother had also joined the film line, but he was supplying foreigners to the industry for shooting. They wanted foreigners then. Once he got into it, then he started working, then my sister Marie finished high school and went into the film line. And that’s when I thought, ‘Right, this is my chance now’.”
Edwina's father would often accompany her on the sets to make sure she was okay. Filmmaker Shakti Samanta also asked her and her father whether she would consider acting, but she stayed with dancing.
“My father at once said no," she said. "She is quite happy with dancing. Because it was a give-and-take situation in those days and my father was very strict, very firm.”
Besides, she said, she was happy she didn’t get into acting because, as she herself admitted, she wasn’t a good actress. Edwina remembered that the dancers were all like one big happy family. “We used to have our lunch break and go on the sets, have a little jam session, go in the makeup room, play cards (flush, rummy), happy-go-lucky people, all of us! I remember I called quite a few of them my brothers.”
Sometimes re-watching the old numbers, she said, it gets a bit sad. “When I watch [the songs], tears come to my eyes. Everyone was so close. Those days are gone forever,” she said.
The dancers were all professional and Edwina said it was usually the stars that made mistakes on the sets. They all only rehearsed for big song sequences like in Teesri Manzil (1966). Most of the time, they just did their own thing. Of the songs she filmed, she fondly remembers the ones from Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960), Tere Ghar Ke Samne (1963), and Teesri Manzil (1966). She sang an impromptu rendition of ‘Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh’.
After the birth of her first child Nigel, Edwina went to England to be with her husband Keith in 1962. She came back soon after.
“I was there four months, I just hated it," she said. "I couldn’t stand it. Because all they did was talk about the weather and wouldn’t even invite you in for a cup of tea. And I said to [my husband], ‘I had to leave my lovely home, such a huge family’, and I said I want to go back.
"Now it’s after that when I went back, I started doing better. Then I was getting more work and being called in,” she said, recalling being more confident in her dance.
In her nearly two-decade career in the film industry, Edwina danced with A-list stars from Dev Anand to Shashi Kapoor. Incidentally, she worked with all the three Kapoor brothers — Raj, Shammi and Shashi. Shammi even kept in touch after they both stopped working in films.
“I wrote to Shammi [on email] and he said he was going to England for a wedding and took my telephone number and said, ‘When I get there, I’ll ring you.’
"I said, ‘Do you remember me at all?’ He said, ‘How can I forget you, the little girl with the ponytail?’ (laughs) In the end, we did go to his home at Malabar Hill with my husband and my friend Theresa. I met his wife, Neela Devi, as well. He said to Keith, ‘We were one big family’.”
Edwina watches Hindi films even now and likes the next generation of stars, especially Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukerji.
“Actually, I think they are lovely, so modern and what beautiful girls, what figures," she said. "But where the story is concerned, I prefer the old days. I can’t forget the old days, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the young ones. They are beautiful and yes, I enjoy them.”
Edwina is aware of her many online fans. Initially, she was wary of talking to people since she was away from the film line for so long. It was her son Eddie who encouraged her to join Facebook. “I’ve made so many friends now than before," she said. "Actually, they reached out to me first, all these people." Humbly, she added, "I didn’t even know I was so important.”
After her husband Keith’s death in 2012, her fans have kept Edwina going. “I don’t know what I would have done. I’m so glad, 50 years later, people say, we used to see you in the films.”